The Duke Heist by Erica Ridley (The Wild Wynchesters #1)

50374203Chloe Wynchester is completely forgettable—a curse that gives her the ability to blend into any crowd. When the only father she’s ever known makes a dying wish for his adopted family of orphans to recover a missing painting, she’s the first one her siblings turn to for stealing it back. No one expects that in doing so, she’ll also abduct a handsome duke.

Lawrence Gosling, the Duke of Faircliffe, is tortured by his father’s mistakes. To repair his estate’s ruined reputation, he must wed a highborn heiress. Yet when he finds himself in a carriage being driven hell-for-leather down the cobblestone streets of London by a beautiful woman who refuses to heed his commands, he fears his heart is hers. But how can he sacrifice his family’s legacy to follow true love?

Review:

3.5 stars

The Duke Heist was just what I needed – a romp of a Regency with a caring beta hero who melts my heart.

The good:

  • Chloe’s siblings are all orphans, brought together by a rich baron, and I am sold on the found family. Each brother and sister has their own skills, from painting to training animals to disguises, and they prove valuable when trying to steal back a painting that’s rightfully theirs.
  • There is a range of rep within the secondary characters – people of color, chronic pain, what appears to be a nonbinary or trans character (no label is given on the page), and perhaps one more queer character (again, no label).
  • Laurence is a titled member of society who gives speeches in Parliament, but I would classify him as a beta hero. He is fully aware of his responsibilities, almost to the point of them being painful, and he considers and puts the needs of others first, regardless of their class or station. The care he takes with Chloe is meltworthy.
  • Servants are people with names and personalities – everyone, not just the butler or a token ladies’ maid. We get a scene of them sitting around a table with the duke and it’s fun and heartwarming, as well as something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a Regency before.
  • While the conflict appears to be enemies to lovers, I would categorize it as two people who have bad impressions of each other from a distance without actually knowing each other. Get them in the same room though….
  • I love flipped tropes and we have a couple, including a semi-flip of “the hero buys the heroine a wardrobe” trope.
  • I cannot wait for the next book – it appears to be a queer relationship and the heart eyes. I can’t stop with the heart eyes.

The not-so-good:

  • The opening came on a bit strong for my liking. It’s like romp! Tons of characters! In your face! and I wasn’t ready for it. Your mileage may vary
  • The plot gets pulled to and fro in a couple of places. It’s been a few days since I finished and while the emotional moments stick with me, the story feels more jumbled the more I think about it.

…but that’s it. A strong start to a series I’m looking forward to continuing – there’s five more Wynchesters who need a happily ever after!

Thanks to Forever for providing a review copy.

Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder (Third Shift #1)

53279743Joe Peluso has blood on his hands. But lawyer and psychologist Neha Ahluwalia is determined to help him craft a solid defense…even if she can’t defend her own obsession. Because Joe took out those Russian mobsters for good reason–those six bad guys were part of the ruthless clan of bear shifters who control Brooklyn’s Russian mafia. His vigilante justice has earned him countless enemies in New York’s supernatural-controlled underworld, and no friends in a government that now bends to Russia at every turn.

Joe knows that creatures like him only deserve the worst. But meeting Neha makes him feel human for the first time in forever. But when the Russian mob attacks the jail for payback, Joe and Neha go on the run–from monsters who want him dead and from their own traitorous hearts.

Review:

I enjoyed Snyder’s Tikka Chance on Me so when I saw she’s coming out with a paranormal romance I jumped at the chance to read it. I usually shy away from books with mafia elements or ex-military heroes, but I enjoyed her look at motorcycle gangs so why not give it a try?

I’m so glad I did. Off the top, this book won’t be for everyone – the hero is a bit of an arse, there are two danger bangs, and while the consent is there it isn’t the most explicit. None of it ended up bothering me, though.

On to the good!

  • This is the first fiction I’ve read that truly interacts with what America has become politically since 2016, pushing it further into a dystopia. Think new Patriot Acts, detention camps on both borders, and drones tracking people in Sanctuary Cities. It’s an alternate 2021 that went off the rails even more than we actually did.
  • There are a bunch of supernatural folx, but Snyder doesn’t try to explain them all at once. Many series start with one kind of shifter then branch out, so I like that we’re starting with a mix here.
  • While we have a wolf character packs aren’t a thing. Instead of those forced relations we’re heading towards a found family, which is utterly my jam.
  • There are many PoVs and they work well together – the hero, heroine, Neha’s coworkers, and the staff at Third Shift.
  • Pretty much every character is from a marginalized group, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ folx, a Jewish guy, Sikh folx of varying devotion, and of course shifters.
  • The diversity of Indian culture is emphasized and celebrated – different languages, religions, styles of dress, and more. We even have a naga, so bonus points for non-Western supernatural beings.
  • I love the secondary characters and cannot wait for them to get their own HEAs, especially a certain Irish vampire who’s too charming for his own good.
  • One character is a cop but he has reservations about his day job, and things… change by the end. I like the way it’s handled.

The not-so-good:

  • Instalove, thanks to the fated mates trope. If you’re a paranormal romance fan it’s par for the course.
  • If you’re into explicit consent the danger bangs may leave you feeling squick-y. I’m not a huge fan of sex just after getting away from the bad guy, but I got through okay.

Big Bad Wolf takes place in a world that I do not want to live in but am happy to visit in fiction, especially with such a great cast of characters – I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca for providing a review copy.

The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper

50043108._SX318_SY475_Michele Harper is a female, African American emergency room physician in a profession that is overwhelmingly male and white. Brought up in Washington, DC, in an abusive family, she went to Harvard, where she met her husband. They stayed together through medical school until two months before she was scheduled to join the staff of a hospital in central Philadelphia, when he told her he couldn’t move with her. Her marriage at an end, Harper began her new life in a new city, in a new job, as a newly single woman.

In the ensuing years, as Harper learned to become an effective ER physician, bringing insight and empathy to every patient encounter, she came to understand that each of us is broken—physically, emotionally, psychically. How we recognize those breaks, how we try to mend them, and where we go from there are all crucial parts of the healing process.

At the highest ranks (doctor, professor) medicine is still a very white field, so I was excited to pick up this memoir by an African-American ER doctor, especially because there was a bunch of buzz around its publication.

The title is apt, as one could say that Harper has “broken” several times in her life. While her family situation looked great from the outside – a doctor’s family in a big house – it hid how horrifyingly abusive her father was, mostly to her mother. She managed to go to medical school herself, fell in love and got married, only to have her husband leave her right before moving to a different city. We follow her as she works at different hospitals and focuses on different parts of the job – administrative, patient care – as she comes to terms with it all.

I can’t go any farther in this review without mentioning that this was a buddy read with the wonderful Louise at the blog A Strong Belief in Wicker. She’s an emergency department doctor in Australia so we had a wonderful time dissecting the text on a medical level along with discussing Harper’s life experiences.

The most solid pro for The Beauty in Breaking is the writing. Some turns of phrase are beautiful, and she’s eloquent when talking about how racism in the medical system has affected her personally, as well as her patients. On that more surface, literary level I have little to complain about.

When it comes to medicine I have questions, though. There are some basic errors (for example, the Glasgow Coma Scale is scored 3-15, not 1-15) so I’m guessing the text wasn’t proofread for medical accuracy. Some of the patient scenarios didn’t make sense – why wasn’t a nurse called in to help with a particular procedure? Why is she ordering a head CT for a run of the mill headache?

While most of the patient stories are interesting and informative, several feel unrealistic. One conversation felt a roleplay scenario that’s part of my training as a medical interpreter – everything clearly said in logical order, with no meandering or backtracking or extraneous information. I’m guessing it was a composite patient, but even composite patients should talk like real people, right?

Harper finds peace via yoga, meditation, and Buddhism, which I’m glad for. I do yoga, too. But I don’t need to read detailed descriptions of her yoga class, and I was surprised that she talked to patients about their “spirit” as much as she did. I’m all for wellness and health in a general sense, but this tipped over into “woo-woo” too much for my liking.

All in all The Beauty in Breaking does a great job discussing certain issues beautifully, but if you’re in medicine yourself details will certainly needle you.

Thanks to Riverhead Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Who Says You’re Dead? Medical and Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious and Concerned by Jacob M. Appel

46221669._SY475_Drawing upon the author’s two decades teaching medical ethics, as well as his work as a practicing psychiatrist, this profound and addictive little book offers up challenging ethical dilemmas and asks readers, What would you do?

In short, engaging scenarios, Dr. Appel takes on hot-button issues that many of us will confront: genetic screening, sexuality, privacy, doctor-patient confidentiality. He unpacks each hypothetical with a brief reflection drawing from science, philosophy, and history, explaining how others have approached these controversies in real-world cases. Who Says You’re Dead? is designed to defy easy answers and to stimulate thought and even debate among professionals and armchair ethicists alike.

Review:

3.5 stars

I wasn’t sure if I should pick up this book, but when I saw that the author is not only a practicing psychiatrist but also a bioethicist and attorney, I couldn’t resist.

Appel looks at 79 dilemmas, some rare (can a millionaire advertise for a new liver?) to situations many of us will face (decisions regarding end of life care). Each case is introduced in a succinct vignette and followed up with a reflection covering legal, ethical, and personal issues that may affect the decision made. It truly is a reflection – Appel doesn’t rule for one side or the other, and he’s sure to mention factors that could make a seemingly off-putting choice rational. The setup gives you a moment to sit and reflect on what you would do in that situation. If a patient revealed that he’s gotten away with murder, would you report it to the police? Would you give someone on death row a liver transplant? What do you do when the sisters of a dying patient disagree about treatment?

The situations themselves are crafted with care. Some are edge cases pushing beyond settled law, some straddle an ethical line, and others show the most sympathetic patient for a particular treatment or intervention. While the vignettes are fictional (doctors Scarpetta, Hawkeye, and Jekyll make appearances) they’re based on actual people and cases, mostly in the US and UK. If you’d like more info there’s a robust appendix pointing to related papers, articles, and books for each dilemma.

With the heavy and at times disturbing medical content it’s not a book I can recommend to everyone, but I found it fascinating. It helped clarify (or occasionally muddy) my thinking about these ethical issues, and pointed me towards some that I didn’t even know existed. Did you know that with gene editing technology it may be possible to use ancient DNA to bring a Neanderthal to term in a human woman? It’s creepy and seems like an absolute no-go, and while Appel leans heavily in that direction he does imagine a semi-apocalyptic scenario where it might make sense.

I had small quibbles with two scenarios. One struck me as slightly ableist and used small d deaf to refer to capital D Deaf culture and people. The other talked about wrongful birth, where a doctor is negligent tying tubes and the woman becomes pregnant and ends up giving birth to a child, her fifth. Juries find it difficult to award damages for having a healthy baby, wanted or not, but the discussion didn’t touch on ways that settlement money could help the family meet the unexpected expenses of raising another child, not to mention psychological impacts. The other scenarios offer nuanced thoughts so this one felt out of place.

Those are only two small concerns, though – overall I found Who Says You’re Dead? fascinating and engrossing. I put it down now and then to take a breath – who wouldn’t after delving into the ethics of full-body transplants? – but it’s a compulsive read for medical nonfiction fans and armchair ethicists.

Thanks to Algonquin Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises by Rebecca Solnit

39688744In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, “with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.” To get to the root of these American crises, she contends that “to acknowledge this state of war is to admit the need for peace,” countering the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.

Review:

Solnit, perhaps best known for Men Explain Things to Me, is back with another essay collection.  While her past two books centered on feminism this one is about social justice of all sorts, touching on climate change, police brutality, gentrification, wrongful imprisonment, and more.

The essays were largely written between 2016 and 2018.  The most powerful theme is the idea that names and language truly matter.  If you cannot name a problem you cannot begin to solve it.  A couple of the essays take a phrase – like “preach to the choir” or “break a news story” – and examine it from various angles.  If preaching to the choir is useless, does that mean we have to try and convert those utterly opposed to our views? Other essays hew closely to reportage, covering the killing of Alex Nieto in San Francisco and the failings of the legal system in the case of Jarvis Masters.

The writing is good but I had fewer “wow” moments than usual.  Solnit is great at stretching your brain and making you look at things from a different perspective but there wasn’t as much of it compared with her earlier essays.  Perhaps if this were my first Solnit, or if I were less versed with the issues, I would have felt differently.

In sum it’s a solid collection, as you would expect from such a good writer, but not my favorite nor her best.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

36622743America is in the grip of a deadly flu. When Frank gets sick, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him. She agrees to a radical plan—time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded labourer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.

But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured.

Review:

An epidemic dystopia with time travel?  I’m there!  Like much good sci-fi Lim uses the fantastical premise to examine the world we live in and let me tell you, it hits ya right in the chest.

The story is harrowing – Polly goes into the future as an indentured servant to pay for the medicine that will save her boyfriend’s life.  They agree to meet when she pops out 12 years later… but she ends up jumping 17 years instead. Oops.  Is Frank waiting for her?  And what has become of the world?

I don’t want to give away plot, but I will say that this book speaks viscerally about the refugee experience.  Instead of escaping an awful place, as many people are trying to do today, Polly escapes an awful time.  Due to the one-way nature of time travel the can’t be “deported” to where she came from, and this lowest of statuses means she’s treated as horribly as you would expect.

an-ocean-of-minutes.jpgEach injustice can be traced to something happening in the world right now, breaking my heart on the regular.  I would put the book down for a while but I always came back to see how Polly gets through, and what’s waiting on the other side.

There are moments of hope but it’s not a feel good read, so know that things get worse – a lot worse – before they get better. That plot drives the book.  Lim writes some beautiful passages, making language the second biggest slice of the “doorway” chart, and the setting has stuck in my mind.  We rarely follow a character for long, though, and while they feel real in a moment I can’t say they develop, quite.  They’re more likely to turn in an unexpected direction instead.

In sum, An Ocean of Minutes is a heckuva story that examines current issues through the lens of speculative fiction. I’m curious to see if it grows in my memory in the months ahead.

Thanks to Touchstone and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

35180951In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.

From chronicling life in Los Angeles to dissecting the “Dead Girl Show” to analyzing literary witches and werewolves, this collection challenges the narratives we create and tell ourselves, delving into the hazards of toxic masculinity and those of white womanhood. Beginning with the problem of dead women in fiction, it expands to the larger problems of living women—both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about Dead Girls – it starts amazing but sadly I had trouble getting all the way to the end.

I do want to be clear – the first part, about the titular women American culture obsesses over, is incredible.  Bolin talks about “Dead Girl Shows” that use the memory of women-who-were to tell stories about the men who killed them or seek to revenge their deaths.  Instead of looking at the impulse some men have to prey on young women the narrative of these shows concentrates on the killer’s psychology and methods, making the practice seem inevitable and beyond the man’s control.  I highlighted many, many passages from this section and will be revisiting the essays so I can chew over them more.

That’s only part one of four, though.  The second section takes a step away and examines women who are living but have been used to sell a story in a related way.  I like Lonely Heart, about the contradictions and tragedy in Britney Spears’ fame, but otherwise my interest started to wane.

If the book were a tire that’s where the slow leak started, with a more steady whooosh becoming apparent over the last two parts.  Bolin gets deep into her experience of being lonely after moving to the West coast and I couldn’t get on board.  It’s an amalgamation of things I have a hard time caring about or connecting with (LA, Joan Didion, accounts of roommates and boyfriends) with books that we are assumed to know but oftentimes I did not.  If you love so-called “Hello to All That/Goodbye to All That” essays, worship Didion, and don’t mind a jumble of thought, you’ll do better here than I.

It’s hard for me to rate Dead Girls because it went from a compulsively readable, fascinating ride to a flat tire I had trouble rolling over the finish line.  I thought it would be a great fit for my Serial Killer Summer but sadly only the first quarter or so fit the bill.

Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

31684565Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm, and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.

But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.

Review:

While reading I kept thinking, “this is the perfect category romance, filled with LGBTQIA+ folks that make it even more awesome.”  So much to love.

Cassidy is in the mold of a Harlequin Presents hero, a high-powered New York lawyer that works hard and plays harder.  She wears exquisitely tailored suits by day and plows through a large swath through the NY lesbian scene by night. Katie, on the other hand, has become unmoored from her social network after her engagement is broken off by her cheating fiancee Paul.  She pulls herself together to do the lawyer thing and ends up in a boardroom negotiating with Cassidy, another firm’s counsel.  Their immediate connection makes Katie wonder if she’s ever truly known herself, while Cassidy wonders why she can’t toss Katie aside like her other lovers.

So we have an alpha heroine, another heroine that wants more from life, glamorous work in a stunning city, topped off with a meet-cute.  Straight-talking best friend? Check. Romantic weekend getaway? Check. Two people falling in love, both because and in spite of their best efforts? Check and check.

It reads fast, is perfectly plotted, and kept me invested in the love story throughout.  The characters are well-rounded and have fully-realized motivations, and there’s no Big Misunderstanding that makes me want to smack a heroine on the upside of the head.  Katie and Cassidy’s love is earned, and it is delicious.

The writing is good, too:

Katie had never been a fantasizer of any kind.  She was more of a planner, a doer. She was a pleaser of others – not one for exploring self-pleasure or whatever….

But Cassidy was hot. And the only other women Katie ever thought of as hot were the ones she wanted to be. Not do. Be.

She could almost see the other photos in a family album somewhere, of the two of them bullet-belted, toting rifles, flashing huge grins over some enormous dead animal. They were the kind of guys Cassidy would cross the street to avoid because her intolerance of them was palpable, yes, but also in fear they’d attack her for sport, too, if she came too close.

I love When Katie Met Cassidy and hope Perri keeps writing books in this vein – brava.

Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations ed. by Sarah Cleave

39737311Reading can be an escape, something transportative that takes you to different countries, cultures and states of mind.  It can take you to all the places that Donald Trump doesn’t want you to go.
(introduction)

Huzzah for Deep Vellum bringing this book to the US – it highlights stories we need to hear. Writers from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya were “asked to develop a fictional response to Trump’s discriminatory ban, exploring themes of exile, travel, and restrictions on movement”.  The resulting short stories, all in translation, range from realistic to fantastic.

I ended up reading each story in one gulp, often while on the train to work.  When I got to the end I’d sit with it while the landscape slid past – people are going through this.  It’s fiction, but it’s real.  Even the most fantastic stories have an air of ‘lying to tell the truth’, using unbelievable circumstances to skewer reality.  All but one use first person, holding us close, refusing any comfort afforded by distance.

We follow someone doing whatever necessary to get to safety, visit a fantasy-like village above the clouds, and follow refugees as they put on a play (of sorts).  As with any collection I liked some stories more than others, but they all got me out of my brain and own life experiences, which is the point.  A great starting point for anyone interested in the people and cultures that some in power would rather we ignore.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson

32920307Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion.

Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

Review:

As a lover of medical and medically-adjacent nonfiction I happily dug into Education of a Coroner.  CSI without all the fake glamour? I’m there!

The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is from Holmes’ point of view but we’re actually following the author, a professional acquaintance.  Bateson goes through Holmes’ records and conducts a series of interviews that form the backbone of the book.  I found myself wishing he had done more synthesis of the material and gotten into Holmes’ head instead of quoting him verbatum.  There’s a big difference between “Holmes thought” and “When I asked Holmes about it he said, ‘Well, I thought…'”

Luckily this distance only occurs in the sections dealing with Holmes’ career.  A large portion book is chock-a-block with fascinating cases from his 36 years on the job – suicides that may not have been suicides, genius (and not so genius) murder methods, clues that make or break an investigation.

As a medical interpreter I found the chapter on death notifications the most interesting.  If Holmes tried to couch the news in niceties it wouldn’t be conveyed at all.

He also learned to avoid saying something like “she succumbed” or “she didn’t survive” or “it was fatal”.  he had to say the word dead or killed.  If he didn’t, if he said something like, “Unfortunately, she didn’t make it,” the next questions were “How bad was it?” “Where is she?” “Can I go talk to her?” because the person didn’t hear. It was way too much information coming from a total stranger without any context or preamble.

All in all Education of a Coroner is a fun read for those who want to know what the job involves in real life.  While I found the beginning and end slow the amazing cases in the middle make up for it.

Thanks to Scribner and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.